The Vashon Health Care District announced progress in its goal to build a modern primary care clinic on Vashon in a central, convenient location for all islanders.
By Elizabeth Shepherd • July 6, 2022 1:30 am
Last week, the Vashon Health Care District announced progress in its goal to build a modern primary care clinic on Vashon in a central, convenient location for all islanders, replacing the current aging clinic at Sunrise Ridge.
Two key elements of the plan — both substantive potential funding for the project as well as a potential site for the new clinic — are now in play, according to a press release from the district as well as follow-up interviews with health care district superintendent Eric Jensen and commissioner Tom Langland.
District poised to purchase land near town
According to Langland, the district is currently close to purchasing, at below-market rates, a site for a new clinic on a plot of vacant land on Vashon Highway, near Vashon’s town core and on the bus line.
Langland described the current owner of the property as “a generous islander” and said the district expected to soon be able to provide more details about the potential purchase agreement.
For now, Langland described the purchase as a “one-time-only opportunity” to secure an ideal site for the new clinic.
“It would be irresponsible to pass up a golden ticket like this when we know we have to build a new facility for this island as soon as possible — and we can do this without raising taxes,” he said.
Federal funding of $5 million recommended
In late May, Senator Patty Murray formally asked Congress to appropriate $5 million to the Vashon Health Care District for the design and construction of the new primary care clinic on the island.
The appropriations request, said the district’s press release, was made possible in part due to the work of islander Bill Hamilton, a lobbyist and former congressional staffer, who volunteered his services to the district to advance the federal funding proposal.
Murray’s $5 million appropriations request, said Langland, will not be approved until the end of the year and is only a first step toward building a new clinic, but a very important one.
“Hundreds of Washington governments, non-profits and other groups asked Sen. Murray to back their projects, so she had to be selective,” Langland said. “We’re extremely grateful she saw merit in our proposal.”
While the $5 million still must win approval from the Senate and House, Murray is a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee. She chairs its Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies Subcommittee, which will write the 2023 appropriations bill in which the Vashon money would be included.
To build the new clinic, the district also hopes to additionally tap $3 million in state funding, originally appropriated in 2018 to Neighborcare Health for the purpose of building a clinic on Vashon. Neighborcare, at the time, operated the clinic at Sunrise Ridge. In 2021, that appropriation was transferred to Sea Mar Community Health Centers, which took over the operation of the clinic after Neighborcare left in 2020.
Sea Mar, said Langland, is a highly motivated partner in the move to a new facility, as the clinic’s current operations are hampered by the limitations of the Sunrise Ridge clinic. The district currently supports Sea Mar’s operations on Vashon with a subsidy of $1.5 million a year.
According to Jensen, the district’s superintendent, the district is involved with Sea Mar on an ongoing collaborative approach to designing and building the new Vashon clinic.
Langland, however, clarified that the district has a guiding principle that Vashon’s new clinic will be community-owned.
“We’re going to uncover every stone to keep control over every aspect of the proposed facility in terms of elements of design, build, and long-term operation,” he said. “We think it should be a community asset and not one owned outside the community.”
Besides the $3 million state appropriation and the potential $5 million federal appropriations, no other funding is now in place for the new clinic, which would have a larger footprint than the current clinic. Pre-design work, said Jensen, is needed to better understand the project budget, which he roughly estimated would cost between $9 and $11 million.
That number, Langland said, was determined by architects and consultants who have, for the past six months, sat on a nine-member task force convened by the health care district to advise the commissioners on decisions and issues posed by the building project.
But whatever the eventual final cost, Langland said that commissioners were hopeful that no tax levy increase would be necessary for the district to build the clinic.
Rather, he said, the district hoped to augment funding from state and federal sources with donations by local philanthropists.
Jensen added that some costs could be covered by district borrowing.
“The district borrowing we are considering would be secured by our regular tax levy,” he said.
The island’s current primary care clinic, at Sunrise Ridge, operated by Sea Mar Community Health Centers under a contract with the Health Care District, was built in the 1950s — one of several cinder-block buildings that were part of a Nike missile base.
While it has served the island’s health care needs for decades, the clinic is too small and is no longer adequate, said Jensen.
“It is very poorly laid out for medical clinic purposes, which makes it inefficient for providers and staff to communicate and work together,” he said. “It has deficiencies in its heating and plumbing systems and is also in an inconvenient location for patients without cars.”
District advised by task force
The Health Care District board began preliminary planning for a new clinic building when it appointed the nine-member strategic planning task force in January.
A few months later, the board submitted its proposal for federal funding to Murray.
Two commissioners — Langland and Alan Aman — sit on the task force, as does Jensen.
Other members include Bill Hamilton, an attorney and lobbyist who was instrumental in developing the proposal for federal funding made to Murray; Dr. Gary Koch, who has decades of experience in delivering primary health care on Vashon; Tim Johnson, the administrator of Granny’s Attic; John Jenkel, a local attorney, and Patricia Haley, a medical facilities architect who is now retired.
According to Jensen, islanders should now stay tuned, as the district works to solidify the remaining funding sources in order to more fully reveal its plans.
“Islanders will have many questions about a new clinic building, and at this point, it’s still too soon to answer many of them,” he said.